This butterfly was believed extinct for 11 years before entomologists walking across the site spotted one fluttering ahead of them. The Palos Verdes Blue.
I hear this story about this nearly extinct butterfly and an ex-gangster, just released form prison, and how he’s out there saving her, daily.
He’s there by five a.m. with his big nets and his teams of butterfly catchers.
He confides in the dark gray wings of the females and whispers into the males’ upper wing surfaces. The blue quiver, coddled in between his fingertips.
This, his gentle prey.
This is how I imagine it: A young black man brings them together to reproduce. Just watch him talk to these fragile winged things. He tells them what prison was like, what it feels like to lose a game of cards and to have to deal with a child molester for this small misfortune.
It was business, not pleasure he tells the world’s rarest butterfly.
His belief that he has found something bigger than God. Finally.
Extinction is a choice, he tells the butterflies.
Gently, he prays.
Extinction is a choice, the butterfly says.
In 1903, in Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, “Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.”
These mysterious existences. Aren’t we all mysterious existences floating through life with our diagnoses and our personalities and shoe sizes?
In his letter, Rilke asks the young poet if he must write? And if the answer is Yes, I must, Rilke says for the young poet to build his life according to this necessity.
I think of the necessity of saving those butterflies. But first, the seeing of them. For ten years they were believed to not exist anymore in the world. They were literally invisible to the human eye.
I wonder how much of our lives go unseen? Unnoticed? the butterfly asks.
I was at a party last weekend where I felt invisible. I flitted in my butterfly-like way through the layers of people staring vacantly into space as if cake, or someone better were always on the way.
Until someone joked with me, did I slip back into my body, did I realize I was not invisible. It took that man, however, in his wire-rimmed glasses and white sneakers to make me a person again. Then, bodies bumping into mine and excuse me and hello and there you are! but before that: invisible. It took one pair of eyes to see me and I was no longer extinct.
Imagine that! Extinct to the world until someone spots you and says you exist. Oh, sweet butterfly, I get you. I get you in your gossamer wings. I get with with your desire to go on and not disappear.
How much of what we see is a choice? the butterfly asks.
I remember one of the guys that used to work in the kitchen with me at the restaurant. We worked together for years. Sweet guy, this chef. Covered in tattoos and a hard-core gangster but one of the sweetest men I had ever met. Always laughing. Always making me little plates of food when I got busy with tables and hadn’t had a chance to eat.
He’d wear these long sleeved shirts to cover his tattoos but if you knew anything at all about gang life, you wouldn’t want to cross paths with him. His tattoos meant business.
Extinction is a choice.
One night, after work, we were drinking on the patio. I asked him about prison as I sipped my red wine. He had tequila and a cigarette.
He told me that when he’d lost in a game of cards he had to rape a child molester. I remember wanting to unhear that information so badly that I swallowed the rest of my wine in one whole gulp. My sweet chef. My sweet tattooed gangster tomato chopping chef. He didn’t want to talk about it.
It was business, he’d said.
What are the things that must be done? the butterfly asks.
It was business. The survival business. We are all in the business of survival.
Rilke, in his Letters, over and over asks this young poet Must you create?
How can something be believed to be extinct? Then one day, there it is, fluttering away in front of you like it had been there all along.
Maybe all these parts of us are always there. Dormant until the necessity arises in us and we are willing to grab our nets and go out into the wild with them.
I must do this. I must create. I must not let myself disappear.
Extinction is a choice.
Rilke says “ Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.”
So this young kid, this ex-gangster, practices preservation every day on the coast south of Los Angeles, in a shrinking patch of coastal scrub community. He attaches himself to this piece of nature by the sea, where he thinks not without irony that so much of life is chance and through what delicate slip in luck did he get to stand out here, with sweat in his eyes and a butterfly in his hand when he could be non-existent? A non-person. What hair-like accident allowed this to occur?
The stone’s throw, the butterfly catcher, this unequivocal beauty in watching hands rove over rocks, over winged creatures. The renewed hopes for survival. The transformation from the pupae into adult butterflies.
I will not disappear, he tells the endangered creature. Nor will you.
We are here, the butterfly says.
Extinction is a choice.
Both of them out there in the wild, waiting to see what life will allow them to keep, what will return.